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Why Can't Celebrities Stop Cursing?


Once again we had another Superbowl incident. Granted it's not quite the same level on the "Did you see that?" scale as the infamous 2004 Wardrobe Malfunction, but rapper M.I.A.'s middle finger and her use of a scatological expletive during the live half-time broadcast, which starred Madonna as the main feature, is still a testament to how little self-control some famous people have.

Not surprisingly the finger flash has generated pages and hours of media commentary. There are those that belittle the incident and say they can't understand the rest of us who still cling to the notion that broadcasters who are given license to use public airwaves should have to live up to a certain level of decency. And once again NBC is saying it's not their fault, asserting M.I.A. didn't extend her third digit during any rehearsals, leading NBC staff to be caught off guard. (Oddly, I have not found any comments regarding the scatological expletive in her lyrics.)

Yet even with NBC's sloppy trigger finger (you can see a desperate attempt to obscure the moment when the picture "scrambles" a couple of seconds after the fleeting gesture) there is a much larger question that goes far beyond this moment in time. Simply put, "Why can't celebrities stop cursing?"

Maybe I'm even more puzzled by this question due to my own personal experience. By the time I was in my teens my language was often peppered with words I knew my mother wouldn't want to hear me speak. In my early twenties, I embraced faith in my life and one of the personal improvements I felt I needed to make was a change in my choice of vocabulary.

Yet even during my salty teen era, I knew when and where such words would not be appropriate. In addition to my aforementioned mother, in my day you didn't use such language at school. Doing so would result in an hour of detention or even worse. I also recognized that while other adults could swear up a storm, most wouldn't tolerate a teen's use of such language.

Aside from these personal examples, there is other evidence to prove that it is possible for one to control their tongue. I have worked in media industries all my life and have spent a great deal of time with what the industry calls "talent" (an often questionable term). News anchors, radio announcers, field reporters... the list goes on and on. Not surprisingly most of these people are far from choirboys and can find a reason to cuss their way through virtually every sentence. But the moment someone says, "You're on!" they instantly put the profanity filter in place. Why? Because it's likely they will lose their jobs if they let a four-letter expletive into their banter before the weather forecast.

Yes, there are times when they don't keep the filter in place -- but those are still rare enough that they are enshrined on station blooper reels and now enjoy undeserved immortality on YouTube.

These rare moments of loose language don't distract from my point. Given the thousands of hours that typically foul-mouthed media commentators are on the public airwaves, their ability to keep their language clean is a testament to how possible it is to put a clamp on it. So why can't a celebrity make it through a three-minute song, or even a 30 second acceptance speech? Could it be because they simply don't care?

As strange as it may be to think of Madonna as the new moralist of broadcast television, a few days ago even she stated her disdain for M.I.A.'s mode of expression. "I was really surprised," she said on Ryan Seacrest's morning show on Friday February 10. Quoting from Seacrest's website, Madonna says, "I didn’t know anything about it. I wasn’t happy about it. I understand it’s punk rock and everything, but to me there was such a feeling of love and good energy, and positivity it seemed negative. It’s such a teenager…irrelevant thing to do…there was such a feeling of love and unity there what was the point? It was just out of place.”

However Mathangi Arulpragasam, M.I.A.'s real name, is anything but a teenager. She's in her middle thirties. And I bet with that much life experience there's a chance she could learn that when you are a guest in millions of family rooms across the nation, you might want to use your manners.

Even more disappointing is this woman has put her neck on the line for many worthy causes, most notably supporting the building of schools in Liberia and ending youth poverty and violence in Africa. Yet many of the millions who had no idea who she was prior to her half-time moment are now defining her based on a momentary display. I know, we are not to judge others so quickly, but we also know how important first impressions are.

Of course M.I.A. is hardly the first and unlikely to be the last celebrity to pull this stunt. Yet I personally know lesser-famous people who no longer have broadcast careers after they have made a similar error on air. If, in a few months, the Supreme Court rules in favor of the FCC's ability to regulate broadcast decency some of these same harsh consequences may be hovering over celebrity careers in the future.

Rod Gustafson


Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews® - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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